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'Calculated greed' at heart of Bell criminal case, D.A. says

September 21, 2010 |  3:25 pm

Eight current and former Bell city leaders were arrested Tuesday on charges of misappropriating more than $5.5 million from the small, working-class community as prosecutors accused them of treating the city’s money as their personal piggy bank.

The charges follow months of nationwide outrage and renewed debate over public employee compensation ever since The Times reported in July that the city’s leaders were among the highest paid municipal officials in the country. Among those charged was former City Manager Robert Rizzo, who led the way with a salary and benefits package of more than $1.5 million.

Prosecutors accused him of illegally writing his own compensation contracts and steering nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized loans to himself and others. “This, needless to say, is corruption on steroids,” Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in announcing the charges.

Cooley described Rizzo as the “unelected and unaccountable czar” of Bell, accusing him of secretly setting his own salary and misappropriating city funds by increasing his compensation without approval by the City Council. “This was calculated greed and theft accomplished by deceit and secrecy,” Cooley said.

City Council members, meanwhile, failed to oversee Rizzo’s actions and instead collected more than $1.2 million in pay since 2006 for presiding over city agency meetings that never occurred, Cooley said. Rizzo’s attorney, James Spertus, did not return calls seeking comment but in the past denied wrongdoing by his client, saying that the investigations were motivated in part by politics. Cooley is running as the Republican nominee for California attorney general.

He denied that the election played any part in the decision to file charges. Many Bell residents greeted news of the charges with joy. “Finally the crooks are going to suffer what the city suffered for many years,” said Carmen Bella, a longtime Bell activist. About two dozen residents gathered outside City Hall to celebrate Tuesday. One man used a bullhorn to broadcast the Queen rock song, “Another One Bites the Dust,” while members of the crowd laughed, cheered and applauded. 

But some wondered what would happen to their embattled city. “Who's going to call the shots?” asked Hassan Mourad, 32. “That's the most important thing right now.” Meyers Nave, a law firm hired by Bell since the scandal broke, released a statement Tuesday saying that it was working to “pursue all options for recovering taxpayer funds that were spent improperly” and restore confidence in the city’s government. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to urge state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to ask a judge to hand over day-to-day management of the city to a court-appointed official.

Cooley said that Tuesday’s arrests occurred without incident but that district attorney’s investigators used a battering ram to enter Mayor Oscar Hernandez’s home when he was slow to open the front door. Investigators led a handcuffed Rizzo, 56, from his Huntington Beach home about 10:15 a.m. Wearing a dark blue polo shirt and black slacks, Rizzo declined to comment to a reporter about the charges. He was booked into Los Angeles County jail and is being held on $3.2 million bail. Among the other city officials arrested were council members Teresa Jacobo, Luis Artiga and George Mirabal; former council members George Cole and Victor Bello; and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia.

Thee officials are expected to appear in court to enter pleas today. Cooley said prosecutors plan to ask a judge to allow them to review the origin of any money put up as bail to ensure it did not come from illegal activity.

In a tearful interview the day before his arrest, Artiga said he accepted blame and had put too much trust in Rizzo. Speaking at his office at Bell Community Church, where he is pastor, Artiga said he was delighted when he first learned how much his salary as a councilman was going to be. “I thought God had answered my prayers, but it was a trap from the devil,” he said.

-- Jack Leonard, Jeff Gottlieb, Richard Winton, Ruben Vives, My-Thuan Tran and Paloma Esquivel

Photos: Arrests in Bell

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